“One of the lads was five minutes late for training. When I asked him why, he said: ‘Because my roof caved in during the night’.”
That was the reality for the coach of the national rugby team on the British Virgin Islands (BVI), which were hit by two category five hurricanes in September.
The small British overseas territory in the Caribbean was devastated by first Hurricane Irma and then Maria as 200mph winds flattened entire neighbourhoods.
Sports facilities and schools were destroyed, and four people were killed by Irma, including athletics coach Xavier ‘Dag’ Samuels.
The death of Samuels and the destruction of the islands’ athletics track, forced BVI’s top athlete Kyron McMaster – the world leading 400m hurdler – to leave for the United States.
Despite the huge setbacks, the national rugby team are preparing for a sevens tournament in Mexico this weekend, while at least two medals are being targeted at next year’s Commonwealth Games in Brisbane, Australia.
“Winning a medal would be priceless,” National Olympic Committee president Ephraim Penn said.
“It will show that out of all this misery, our athletes still rise up and show BVI pride and represent the country in a positive light on the international scene.”
Hurdler McMaster, 20, told BBC Sport: “I am doing this for them [BVI people], they are waiting to hear some good news.
“It’s been a while since someone got some good news down there.”
Interactive See how Road Town, Tortola has been damaged by Hurricane Irma
9 Sep 2017
31 Mar 2015
‘They’ve lost everything, but still turn up for training’
Englishman James Vaughan-Turner only arrived in the BVI as their rugby head coach three weeks before Irma hit and said the main island Tortola looked like a “Hollywood movie” afterwards.
Remarkably, though, the 23-year-old’s team are back in training for the Rugby Americas North sevens tournament in Mexico, which starts on Saturday.
Early sessions were interrupted by British army helicopters landing on the pitch, while players helped clear debris from the surface to make it usable again.
“It is jaw-dropping what has happened; there is carnage everywhere,” Vaughan-Turner said.
“The buildings have collapsed but we still manage to play rugby, that shows the character of the team.
“Most of my players lost everything – their houses, all their clothes, their kit,” he added.
“I have players turning up for an international tournament just in sandals and socks because they haven’t got any boots.
“Some have lost family and friends, and I think rugby is helping them with the process of grieving.
“It shows what kind of players I have – they have lost everything, yet they still turn up for training every day. They want to represent their country and make their country proud.”
Vaughan-Turner is optimistic of their chances in Mexico – saying they are “going there to win” – but says just getting a team to the tournament will be a proud moment for the BVI.
‘Everything just sank in me, I fell and started to cry’
McMaster has run the fastest 400m hurdles time in the world this year, winning the Zurich Diamond League a few weeks after being disqualified in August’s World Athletics Championships in London, where he was among the favourites.
His home avoided significant damage from Irma, but he said that seeing the devastation around him made him want to cry.
“It was breathtaking,” he said. “We see everything, roofs gone, cars inside of houses, it was crazy, something like you see on TV from the Vietnam war.”
The day after the hurricane, he was told that Samuels, his coach of eight years and a man he describes as a “father figure” and “best friend”, had been killed.
The loss forced him to relocate with his new coach Lennox Graham to Clemson in South Carolina, even though he was prepared to stay and train in the “totally decimated” athletics facilities.
“I was speechless,” said McMaster of a man who was also chef de mission for BVI at international games.
“Everything just sank in me, I fell to the ground and started to cry.”
McMaster, who was pallbearer at Samuels’ funeral added: “If coach had not died, I would not have moved. BVI is where my heart is and I miss it it every day.
“Being home in BVI is my comfort zone, so right now I am out of my comfort zone.
“Coach always told me, no matter what happens, he does not want us to cry or sob over him. All I can do now is make BVI proud, if he is watching from above then also to make him proud.”
McMaster is part of a predicted 10-strong team for the Commonwealth Games in April, and is being tipped to win a medal in Brisbane – as is 25-year-old long jumper Chantel Malone.
National Olympic Committee president Penn, 59, said the athletes could be “shining lights” for the BVI and could show “sport is a unifying and positive factor” in the territory’s recovery.
“We are down but we are not out, we are coming back in all ways,” Penn said. “It has not been easy, but we have survived, that is the key word.”
‘A huge setback’
Andy Bickerton, originally from Bournemouth, is the president of the BVI Football Association and has both played for and managed the national team during his 35 years on the territory.
He said the FA is now “operating out of a shipping container” and has been “set back 10 to 15 years” after its headquarters were destroyed, while he has also suffered great personal damage.
“By the end of the hurricane, I didn’t have a home anymore,” he said.
“It was incredibly traumatic. All you care about is personal safety and keeping your loved ones safe.”
Hurricane Irma also partially destroyed a new Fifa-funded artificial pitch in Tortola, on which the national team – ranked 205th in the world – were scheduled to play in Concacaf’s League of Nations in September 2018.
“It will be difficult as the players are scattered all over, in the USA, the UK and other islands,” Bickerton said. “But we will definitely enter the tournament. It has to be a major step for us in trying to recover.
“Football has been devastated here, but it will not stop us.”
‘The focus is not just on elite athletes’
Bickerton said 50% of primary schools are not available for use, while the main high school on Tortola is also unusable after being badly damaged, adding that children are “working out of a hardware store”.
The BVI FA has made the artificial pitch available for use to “raise morale” and it has restarted the afterschool program for youngsters remaining on the island.
“It is a good release for them,” he said. “A step towards normality, it is an important step for the island to see sport is available.”
Vaughan-Turner has been running rugby coaching lessons in the schools as he says most of the physical education teachers have left the islands.
“It is not just a focus on elite athletes, but the general population” Penn said. “To make sure they do not succumb to being inactive and make bad matters worse.
“To be just focusing every day on the devastation and the misery of the aftermath can be very depressing.
“We see sport in different communities and in schools can play a major role in taking their minds off this misery and be a positive thing for kids, young and old to look forward to.”
Listen to McMaster on BBC World Service’s Sport Today on Wednesday, 22 November at 19:32 GMT